Thursday, 15 September 2022

Betsy Jolas’ bTunes

Video thanks to the invaluable 5against4 blog, whose contrasting write-up can be found here.

Nicholas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Monday 5 September 2022.

bTunes, the new piano concerto by Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas, premiered at the Proms in early September on the bill with a much more familiar, but equally strange piece. Under conductor Karina Canellakis, the BBC Symphony Orchestra rendered Mahler’s First Symphony with due attention to its luminous strangeness. The symphony doesn’t so much begin as appear, with the spectral hovering of a seven-octave drone in the strings. It goes on to stage several deeply strange set-pieces, including a lengthy funeral march in which Frère Jacques meets a klezmer melody, and an extended finale, with a sudden and unexpected eruption of doom-laden fanfares and closing, blasting, percussive blare of triumph. At times, Canellakis virtually danced off the podium, and the orchestra’s sprightly account emphasized the piece’s sharp and eerie edges, rendered all the stranger for the strangely apposite sounds of a crying baby in the first movement.

For her part, Jolas’ concerto began with a bit of (extra-)musical comedy, the orchestra’s leader desperately ‘conducting’ the ensemble, cymbal rolls and string textures sounding out like an opening cough, in the apparent absence of conductor and pianist, before Callenakis came running in from the wings, ushering pianist Nicholas Hodges on stage in a Laurel and Hardy routine. More jokes abounded at various points: Hodges slamming the cover down on the keyboard to signal performative frustration or a musical transition—it’s not clear which; the violinists inaudibly bowing the back of their instruments. In such moments, Jolas plays with the traditional roles of the classical orchestra, not only sonically, but in terms of the whole drama and ritual of the concert hall. Musically, as Jolas’ programme note explains, the piece is constituted of separate solo piano pieces assembled as a kind of playlist—hence the punning i-tunes nod in the title. Rather than the traditional romantic warhorse, Jolas renders the piano concerto as a collection of brilliantly-coloured sketches, in which despite a virtuosic piano part, the overall feel is that of a seething, collective texture, the ensemble constantly echoing and amplifying Hodges’ twittering, trilling curlicues. As in much of Jolas’ work, the piece wears its structure lightly: open and flowing, yet precise, its structures assemble and disassemble themselves in a fashion that often feels loose and improvisatory, like breaths of free and clear air.

Astonishingly, once the piece was over, the 96 year-old Jolas stood up from the audience to receive applause and, afterwards, to sign autographs. While some in the audience were clearly bemused, it’s heartening to see such recognition, particularly given Jolas’ long-standing—and clearly gendered—neglect. Jolas herself may not, as she’s stated in interviews, be optimistic about the future of new music, but her own work is anything but pessimistic. It has hope that intellection, liveliness, cheerfulness, joy, and the careful cultivation of an ethics of listening, are all values music can still explore and hold to; hope that awareness of musical history and tradition does not mean being closed but being open, not simply repeating but varying, inventing, ceaselessly turning over and examining the matter of sound with the joy of discovery and with a sense that there is no end to the possibilities to be found.

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